Source: Revolutionary History Vol.7.no.1, pp.35-39
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Chris Clayton
This short methodological piece is printed here as an addendum to Catherine Legien’s summary of Nadya de Beule’s work. It also comes from the Cahiers du CERMTRI, no 27, December 1982, pp24-6. It consists of a few short remarks about Catherine Legien’s own thesis, Le Parti Socialiste Révolutionnaire: le Mouvement trotskyste en Belgique de 1936 à 1939 (The Revolutionary Socialist Party: The Trotskyist movement in Belgium from 1936 to 1939), also submitted to the Catholic University of Louvain (1982), which resumes the story of the Belgian Trotskyists where Nadya de Beule leaves off. We are yet again deeply indebted to CERMTRI for permission to publish it in an English version.
UNDER THE title of Le Parti Socialiste Révolutionnaire: le Mouvement trotskyste en Belgique de 1936 à 1939, Catherine Legien submitted to the Catholic University of Louvain a thesis with the aim of obtaining the qualification of Licentiate in History under the supervision of Professor Frognier. Thus for the first time a subject came to be tackled that deserves a certain amount of attention. The Belgian Parti Socialiste Révolutionnaire came into being from an encounter between the old section of the Belgian Left Opposition — the Vereeken group in Brussels, and above all that of Léon Lesoil in Charleroi — and the left wing of Belgian Social Democracy, the Parti Ouvrier, or the Jeunes Gardes Socialistes who had first been organised around Action Socialiste, and then after this split, in the Action Socialiste Révolutionnaire which published a weekly bearing this name, and which was led by the JGS leader Walter Dauge.
Catherine Legien set herself a double task. On the one hand, she wished to point out and give an account of the great political debates: before the birth of the PSR, the debate between the Belgian Trotskyists, the ‘entryists’, like Lesoil, and the ‘anti-entryists’, like Vereeken, and the subsequent split; and after the birth of the PSR the debate about the Brussels election and the electoral confrontation between Paul Van Zeeland and the Rexist leader Degrelle, the question of the ‘new trade unions’, that of the POUM, the open split caused by the withdrawal of Vereeken in 1938, and the crisis experienced by the party in 1939-40. On the other hand, she attempted to show in a concrete way what the PSR was, and what its ‘federations’ amounted to, by going through its membership lists indicating age, responsibilities, jobs and positions, but also by outlining its public activities, and even the print run of its journal or of other publications that were distributed locally, etc.
Extremely serious, and equally scrupulous in her use and interpretation of the documents, Catherine Legien sometimes lacks ambition, or indeed audacity, and she remains timid, or indeed reserved, with reference to her own subject. It is much to be regretted, for example, that as regards the debate over entrism, we do not have a concrete idea of what the POB amounted to (typed, moreover, on several occasions as ‘PCB’, which doesn’t help matters), and what the ASR tendency represented within it, with its weekly paper that until 1935 was edited by Paul Henri Spaak, who corresponded with Trotsky and visited him in 1934. Was not one of Trotsky’s arguments in favour of ‘entrism’ in Belgium the existence of this left wing, and of the left wing of the JGS in particular, represented as far as he was concerned by Dauge? And hasn’t Catherine Legien read in the Oeuvres Trotsky’s letters where he justifies the necessity for entrism by the need to win the militants around Dauge, not to mention Dauge himself?
The same goes for Catherine Legien’s concept of narrative history, which leads her to present the debates in this account in the form of lengthy, very lengthy, extracts from opposing texts, replying to each other and contradicting each other. They are obviously interesting, but why not in such a case confine yourself to an intelligently presented account of the documents? The disadvantage of this method is all too obvious: the texts are placed practically side by side, and there is neither narrative, commentary, nor continuous analysis, which makes the most serious discussions over principled questions appear to be purely anecdotal. And as regards the building of the PSR by means of its federations, it is obviously incompletely presented, because it is only described in terms of numbers or lists, and it appears to develop in a milieu which, at least as far as the French reader is concerned, depends upon abstraction, which does not appear to live, split or struggle for unity, which was certainly the case during the period studied.
Catherine Legien’s work nonetheless lays down solid bases for a study that aims to be more scientific and consequently less descriptive, an historical explanation rather than an inventory. The PSR arose from the fusion of the ‘entryist’ Trotskyists and the authentic left Socialists within the ASR, and then from the fusion of this ASR with the ‘anti-entryists’ of Vereeken. It was an organisation whose strength turned out to be about 800 militants, so that the tiny Belgian section had an organisation numerically far superior during this time to the French section, and only apparently overtaken by the American section. We can understand from this its historic importance within the International Opposition, and then in the Fourth International. It otherwise appears to have been very heterogeneous. Were the some 660 militants who made up the Borinage Federation, most of whom had come out of the POB, all ‘Bolshevik-Leninists’? This can be doubted by reading the information supplied by Catherine Legien, notably about the debate concerning the conditions for membership, and activity. In 1937, these 660 militants sold on average 2300 papers. The Charleroi Federation, the ‘proletarian core’ of the PSR, men from the mines and engineering factories, who numbered only 54 at the time, sold 1500 copies a week. In 1936, the former gained 7050 votes in the elections, and the latter 2083. Was there not a distinction to be made, which, it seems, was commonly made at the time, between the ‘Daugists’ and the ‘Trotskyists’ of the PSR? At any rate, this is what is suggested by reading the chapters devoted to the trade union discussion and to the debate on the Brussels by-election: it was well and truly the Daugist current which here embarked along a road that was very rapidly bound to separate it from the International to which it belonged.
The name of Vereeken comes up page after page, which Legien incorrectly spells as ‘Vereecken’, since after the war the man discovered the true spelling of his name, Vereeken. This militant played an important rôle in the history of the movement, and not only in Belgium. His devotion, his courage, and his enthusiasm were undeniable, as well as his attachment to Communism and to the cause of the working class. But a study of the history of the PSR must examine seriously — and not only by mentioning the texts of his opponents — the twists in his political lines, his sharp turns, his ‘caprices’, as Trotsky called them, his crises of sectarianism that ushered in long periods of opportunist adaptation. Moreover, as shown by his book on the GPU, in which he touches upon practically all the points in the history of the movement, and also by the existence of his archives, Vereeken has become a reference point in regard to which it is necessary to show the strictest vigilance. A precondition for a serious historical work on the Belgian Trotskyist movement is a critique of Vereeken’s methods, of his way of presenting and using documents, and even of his method of reasoning, and Catherine Legien should have attacked him here rather more than occasionally, bit by bit, as she has done.
The fact that this organisation, so totally and profoundly working-class in its composition, showed at the same time so much sensitivity to the arguments and pressures of the petit-bourgeoisie, whether it be in support of an ‘anti-Fascist’ capitalist candidate in the elections, or in the affair of the POUM, are problems that do not fail to arise for the reader of Catherine Legien’s work. Did not the depression and the terrible discouragement that gripped hold of Léon Lesoil from 1936 onwards, and which never completely left him, have a political cause? We would like to know more.
In her correction concerning Dauge from 1939 to 1944, Catherine Legien shows, however, that she knows how to be precise and deal fairly with legends as well as stupidities.
The criticisms made here must not conceal the immense merits of this considerable work on the part of a beginner. Two of them are not only essential, but vital. To begin with, Catherine Legien is extremely attentive to all that concerns references, sources or quotations; the care with which she handles them inspires confidence, and is a basic precondition for the success of any historical work. Next — and perhaps to the detriment of what she was personally able to do to make the question understandable — she has accumulated the materials, whether they be raw material, like documents, or things worked on, like the impressive series of biographical notices that she provides in an appendix. She has therefore created the conditions for carrying further the work that she has begun, and has avoided the great risk that lies in wait for presumptuous beginners: of writing a work that will restrict research after them. And this is not all of value from Catherine Legien, who has well benefited from her research. Let us say quite frankly to her: it is up to her to write, in a form that will appear adequate to her, a history of the PSR that will lift itself up a little above the documents to be able to rise to the level of the political questions posed to the world during this time, and will therefore make a real step forward in our understanding.
1. See below, p48, n13.
2. In March 1937, the Belgian fascist leader Léon Degrelle (1906-46), formerly a militant of Catholic Action, and leader of the Rexist movement from 1935, ran in a by-election for one of the Brussels parliamentary seats. He was opposed by the Prime Minister, Paul Van Zeeland, of the Catholic Party. The Belgian Labour Party and the Communist Party refused to put up their own candidates in order to allow him to defeat Degrelle. Dauge and Lesoil were against the Trotskyists putting up their own candidate, but Vereeken was in favour.
3. On Vereeken’s opposition to Trotsky’s criticism of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War, see G Vereeken, The GPU in the Trotskyist Movement, London, 1976, pp154-67, 175-85, and LD Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), New York, 1973, pp269-81.
4. Paul Henri Spaak (1899-1972), a lawyer, was one of the leaders of the Belgian Socialist Party. After a visit to the USSR, he met Trotsky in 1933 and two years later was one of the leaders of the left wing of the POB, Action Socialiste. But in 1935, he became Minister of Transport in the National Government, and later Prime Minister (1938-39, 1946-49). He then became Secretary-General of NATO (1957-61), prior to becoming Foreign Minister (1961-66). On Trotsky’s dealings with him, see below, and Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, 1935, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1976, pp47-8.